It is such a pleasant change, after the last couple of years, to see our mild winter continue as it started off. But the beekeeper should be aware of the implications. Whereas last year bees were lost to brutal cold, this year the dangers are different and perhaps a little bit surprising.
The mild November and December saw many more days warm enough for bees to fly. Flying bees burn through much more food than clustered bees, and it was noticeable last month that my bees had eaten significantly more honey than would be typical. This can be assessed by “hefting” the hive — that is, carefully lifting the back of the hive to get an estimate of its weight. Right now hives should still be heavy, having used about half their honey stores. Hives that feel light — less than 60 pounds — may need feeding. Spring starvation is a real risk after a warm winter.
Feeding bees in winter is not like feeding in other seasons. You cannot feed sugar syrup, as the bees cannot deal with the high water content in the cold. Instead, bees should be fed “solid” food, such as winter patties, candy, fondant or even dry granulated sugar. Having tried all the above, my favorite is the winter patty, which is almost all sugar but has small amounts of pollen substitute, feeding stimulants and essential oils. At this time of year it’s important not to feed more than trace amounts of pollen substitute; otherwise bees will prematurely start brood rearing, which in turn will accelerate the risk of starvation.
It’s a good idea to get out to the hives and heft them as soon as you can. If there is any doubt about them being heavy enough, buy or prepare some food. As soon as we have a day nudging the low 40s, crack open the hive and you are likely to see the cluster at the top of the top hive body. Have a quick check to see whether you can see that the cluster is in contact with capped honey, which will tell you how soon you will need to go back to feed again. Your hive should be fitted with a winter feeding rim. If not, get one. This cavity is where you can place your food. Once you have added the food, quickly close up the hive.
Do not be tempted to pull out frames during these feeding events, even if the bees look dead. Sometimes bees can be almost motionless in the cluster. I remember one of our new members in PCBA telling us that having opened his hive, he found the cluster of dead bees and decided to do an autopsy, finding the bees face down in the cells of the comb. He brought one of the frames of bees into the house to show his wife the sad sight. Several hours later in his living room, a bee flew in and landed nearby. Thinking this strange, he went back to the mudroom, where he had set down the comb of dead bees and found the room was full of crawling and flying bees, very much alive.
As we start getting days in the 40s and 50s, we will see short spells where hundreds or thousands of bees will fly. These cleansing flights give the bees a welcome bathroom break and an opportunity to carry out many of their dead sisters. Hives that do not show this activity almost certainly are dead, and it is time to order new replacement bees.
Once spring has arrived, we will need to do some early checks for mite levels. Warm winters are often followed by an early rise in varroa mite populations.
I again will have 3-pound packages of Italian bees arriving in Maine on or about April 23 for $128 each. Every year these sell out well in advance. If you need them, order early. Nucs also will be available in May and June at $165. I have a full range of beekeeping equipment, winter patties and protective equipment in stock.
My beekeeping classes for 2016 have begun. There is still time to join one of my weeknight adult education beginner or intermediate beekeeping classes in Bangor, Bucksport, Ellsworth, Hampden, Howland, Newport, Pittsfield and Sullivan. Contact your adult ed office. For those who cannot make weeknights, I will again be giving several one-day classes at my home in Hampden on Saturdays in April and May. These start at 8 a.m. with four hours of classes and are followed by going to some of my beehives in the afternoon, weather permitting. Morning coffee and lunch provided. Call me on 207-299-6948 to book your place.
Peter Cowin, aka The Bee Whisperer, is president of the Penobscot County Beekeepers Association. His activities include honey production, pollination services, beekeeping lessons, sales of bees and bee equipment, and the removal of feral bee hives from homes and other structures. Check out “The Bee Whisperer” on Facebook, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 299-6948.